Preparedness & Recovery

Emergency Managers Stress the Need for Social Media Volunteers

Emergency managers are recruiting an army of volunteers who, in a disaster, will harness the power of social media.

by Eliot Kleinberg, McClatchy News / May 16, 2014
FEMA officials answer questions about Hurricane Sandy using Twitter in January 2013. Photo courtesy of Andrea Booher/FEMA
Emergency managers are recruiting an army of volunteers who, in a disaster, will ride herd on the tremendous power of social media to inform us — and misinform us.

“Rumors start quickly after a disaster. Social media has just made that easier,” Florida State University’s David Merrick told a workshop today at the Florida Governor’s Hurricane Conference in Orlando.

“Facebook and Twitter allows that to happen nearly instantaneously across the entire country. You really have to have an idea on that so you can see what the public is saying that might be wrong,” said Merrick, deputy director of Florida State University's (FSU) Center for Disaster Risk Policy.

And, he said, “We’re all aware that, in an absence of information, people just make it up.”

FSU is a leader in the “virtual operations support team” concept, in which volunteers monitor the flood of amateur reporting via Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms, try to figure out what’s legitimate, and pass that along to emergency managers to analyze and, if needed, disseminate.

Palm Beach County Emergency Management began training for its own such setup this past summer.

In a crisis, as many as a dozen county employees whose jobs aren’t disaster-related will staff the county’s Digital Information Support Center, based at the Emergency Operations Center at Military Trail near Southern Boulevard.

They will pass what they find to public information managers, who will determine how to respond — either with a news release or at a news conference, or with an update for people staffing phone banks or a posting to the county’s own Twitter and Facebook accounts.

The county also has a webpage — the Individual Damage Reporting Tool — that residents can use to report damage after a storm from their computers or smartphones. Information will drop into a giant map at the operation center’s “war room.” Emergency workers then can look at the entire county’s conditions and send help quickly to the neighborhoods that need it most.

FSU’s Merrick said that, ironically, while the volunteer system deals with 21st century technology, it’s very labor-intensive. There’s no automated process for monitoring all that chatter.

“We’ve still not been able to take the human out of the loop when it comes to analyzing this information,” he said.

And with everyone dealing with tightening budgets, agencies must rely more and more on volunteers.

The good part is that they can operate anywhere they have a desktop or laptop computer and an Internet connection, plus social media accounts.

FSU has recruited about 30 students, Merrick said.

Several were busy during recent flooding in Florida’s panhandle.

“The trick there is trying to identify what is good and bad,” Merrick said. “We are looking for reports of people that were trapped, of which there were several. They weren’t ‘trapped.’ They just couldn’t get out onto the road.”

Often, the problem isn’t too little on the twitter-sphere, but rather too much “noise.”

Tweets use “hashtags” — placing the “#” symbol, followed by an acronym or short word at the end of their tweet — to let people access all tweets related to a specific topic.

In the Panhandle flooding, people were just making up hashtags as they went, and there were several, which served to defeat the purpose.

On top of that, hashtags aren’t exclusive.

All week, the hurricane conference ran a social media exercise called “Duckville Duckhunt,” in which a hurricane struck the imaginary town and conference participants are asked to send imaginary situation reports. Its hashtag: “#quackattack.”

At the same time, across the continent, the Anaheim Ducks and neighbor Los Angeles Kings were locked Thursday in Game Six of their National Hockey League playoff. As Anaheim fans watched the team play, and eventually lose, they flooded the twitter world with the same hashtag: “#quackattack.”

That meant anyone searching “#quackattack,” looking for the conference exercise, would be reading a lot about hockey.

That, Merrick said, is an example of how, in a real crisis, the combination of bad information, information with the wrong identifiers, and information posted in the wrong places, can hinder more than help.

“A lot of bad information gets out there,” Merrick said.

And, he said, “most of it gets retransmitted and retweeted, not out of malice, but because people don’t pay attention.”

He said he solves that by just ignoring retweets. But, he said, “(if) 10 people all have said there is flooding, and if I put them in a map and they’re all in the same area, that’s good enough for me.”

©2014 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)